It’s been over six years since I last read my favorite book passage to anyone. This will be familiar to only a handful of people I still talk to – for the rest of you, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
“I’ve got an end of the world story,” says Dag, finishing off the remainder of the iced tea, ice cubes long melted. He then takes off his shirt, revealing his somewhat ribby chest, lights another filter-tipped cigarette, and clears his throat in a nervous gesture.
The end of the world is a recurring motif in Dag’s bedtime stories, eschatological You-Are-There accounts of what it’s like to be Bombed, lovingly detailed, and told in deadpan voice. And so, with little more ado, he begins:
“Imagine you’re standing in line at a supermarket, say, the Vons supermarket at the corner of Sunset and Tahquitz — but theoretically it can be any supermarket anywhere — and you’re in just a vile mood because driving over you got into an argument with your best friend. The argument started over a road sign saying Deer Next 2 Miles and you said, ‘Oh, really, they expect us to believe there are any deer left?’ which made your best friend, who was sitting in the passenger seat looking through the box of cassette tapes, curl up their toes inside their running shoes. And you sense you’ve said something that’s struck a nerve and it was fun, so you pushed things further: ‘For that matter,’ you said, ‘you don’t see nearly as many birds these days as you used to, do you? And, you know what I heard the other day? That down in the Caribbean, there aren’t any shells left anywhere because the tourists took them all. And, haven’t you ever wondered when flying back from Europe, five miles over Greenland, that there’s just something, I don’t know — inverted — about shopping for cameras and scotch and cigarettes up in outer space?’
“Your friend then exploded, called you a real dink, and said, ‘Why the hell are you so negative all the time? Do you have to see something depressing in everything?’
“You said back, ‘Negative? Moi? I think realistic might be a better word. You mean to tell me we can drive all the way here from L.A. and see maybe ten thousand square miles of shopping malls, and you don’t have maybe just the weentsiest inkling that something, somewhere, has gone very very cuckoo?’
“The whole argument goes nowhere, of course. That sort of argument always does, and possibly you are accused of being unfashionably negative. The net result is you standing alone in Vons checkout line number three with marshmallows and briquettes for the evening barbecue, a stomach that’s quilted and acidic with pissed-offedness, and your best friend sitting out in the car, pointedly avoiding you and sulkily listening to big band music on the A.M. radio station that broadcasts ice rink music down valley from Cathedral City.
“But a part of you is also fascinated with the cart contents of the by-any-standards-obese man in line up ahead of you.
“My gosh, he’s got one of everything in there! Plastic magnums of diet colas, butterscotch-flavored microwave cake mixes complete with their own baking tins (ten minutes of convenience; ten million years in the Riverside County Municipal Sanitary Landfill), and gallons and gallons of bottled spaghetti sauce…why his whole family must be awfully constipated with a diet like that, and hey — isn’t that a goiter on his neck? ‘Gosh, the price of mlk is so cheap, these days,’ you say to yourself, noting a price tag on one of his bottles. You smell the sweet cherry odor of the gum rack and unread magazines, cheap and alluring.
“But suddenly there’s a power surge.
“The lights brighten, return to normal, dim, then die. Next to go is the Muzak, followed by a rising buzz of conversation similar to that in a movie theatre when a film snaps. Alredy people are heading to aisle seven to grab the candles.
“By the exit, an elderly shopper is peevishly trying to bash her cart through electric doors that won’t open. A staff member is trying to explain that the power is out. Through the other exit, propped open by a shopping cart, you see your best friend enter the store. ‘The radio died,’ your friend announces, ‘and look–’ out the front windows you see score of vapor trails exiting the direction of the Twentynine Palms Marine base up the valley, ‘–something big’s going on.’
“That’s when the sirens begin, the worst sound in the world, and the sound you’ve dreaded all your life. It’s here: the soundtrack to hell — wailing, flaring, warbling, and unreal — collapsing and confusing both time and space the way an ex-smoker collapses time and space at night when they dream in horror that they find themselves smoking. But here the ex-smoker wakes up to find a lit cigarette in his hand and the horror is complete.
“The manager is heard through a bullhorn, asking shoppers to calmly vacate, but no one’s paying much attention. Carts are left in the aisles and the bodies flee, carrying and dropping looted roast beefs and bottles of Evian on the sidewalk outside. The parking lot is now about as civilized as a theme park’s bumper cars.
“But the fat man remains, as does the cashier, who is wispily blond, with a bony hillbilly nose and translucent white skin. They, your best friend, and you remain frozen, speechless, and your minds become the backlid NORAD world map of mythology — how clichè! And on it are the traced paths of fireballs, stealthily, inexorably passing over Baffin Island, the Aleutians, Labrador, the Azores, Lake Superior, the Queen Charlotte Islands, Puget Sound, Maine … it’s only a matter of moments now, isn’t it?
“I always promised myself,’ says the fat man, in a voice so normal as to cause the three of you to be jolted out of your thoughs, ‘that when this moment came, I would behave with some dignity in whatever time remains and so, Miss–’ he says, turning to the clerk in particular, ‘let me please pay for my purchases.’ The clerk, in the absence of other choices, accepts his money.
“Then comes The Flash.
“‘Get down,’ you shout, but they continue their transaction, deer transfixed by headlights. ‘There’s no time!’ But your warning remains unheeded.
“And so, just before the front windows become a crinkled, liquefied imploding sheet — the surface of a swimming pool during a high dive, as seen from below –
“And just before you’re pelleted by a hail of gum and magazines –
“And just before the fat man is lifted off his feet, hung in suspended animation and bursts into flames while the liquefied ceiling lifts and drips upward –
“Just before all of this, your best friend cranes his neck, lurches over to where you lie, and kisses you on the mouth, after which he says to you, ‘There. I’ve always wanted to do that.’
“And that’s that. In the silent rush of hot wind, like the opening of a trillion oven doors that you’ve been imagining since you were six, it’s all over: kind of scary, kind of sexy, and tainted by regret. A lot like life, wouldn’t you say?”